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What is Career Pathing and How Does it Help Businesses?

Career pathing yields substantial benefits for employers and employees. Here's how and why you should begin a career development program.
a boss working on career pathing with her employee

When intrepid explorers enter new territory, having a path or plan that guides their efforts increases their confidence and helps them be more productive in their pursuits. Lack of one may yield the opposite. It's a similar situation for your employees. Entering a new work environment or trying to navigate the future without support or assistance can leave them feeling anxious, isolated and potentially lost. This is where career pathing or career mapping can become strategically valuable for you and your employees.

What is a career path?

A career path is a type of talent management strategy that charts the career development for an employee with a particular employer. A thorough career path identifies opportunities for advancement based on an individual's unique skills, interests, and career objectives, and details the steps that the employee needs to take along the way to reach various milestones outlined in the career path. For professional growth and development, career mapping is essential.

Although related, career path and employee development are not interchangeable terms. Employee development refers to the specific skill sets, training, and/or certifications an employer gives an employee to improve their role and value in service to the company. Expanding skill sets and qualifications may be a portion of an employee's career growth and development, but do not establish the career path in its entirety.

For example, an autoworker is taught a new welding skill making them more valuable to the employer. This is a form of employee development and can play a small role in their overall career. Mastering a new skill could make them open to further learning, positioning them for a promotion, a future pay raise or make them employable in the event of a layoff.

The benefits of career pathing for employers

Career pathing may require an additional level of involvement in training and development from HR as well as managers, but it can yield several tangible benefits to businesses that invest in it, including:

Greater return on hiring investment

Much of the time, energy, and financial investment that goes into hiring and training new employees is unavoidable. But the longer an employee stays with a company and effectively contributes to it, the return on investment in hiring that person increases. This has a positive impact on both new employees and current or tenured ones.

Engaged employees

Businesses that communicate career pathing to their employees can encourage overall engagement throughout the lifetime of their employment as well as their willingness to invest in learning the "ins and outs" of the business, beyond the scope of their current role. Communicating career paths can take multiple forms. Employees should know about career advancement opportunities and open discussions about their goals should take place on a regular basis. In the 2019 Paychex Pulse of HR survey, HR leaders reported the following top tactics to foster engagement:

  • Offering employee training to develop new skills.
  • Empowering employees to suggest new work methods or projects.
  • Regularly asking employees for feedback about their job satisfaction.

Each of the above tactics are important components in career mapping.

Retention

A career path can serve as a guide to determine what skills or experiences an employee may need to develop to qualify for newly available opportunities within the organization. Think of a computer analyst who needs a managerial certification before being considered as lead software engineer. This can be particularly useful if an employee begins to lose interest in their position. It is an ideal time to revisit the career path; while there is no guarantee, it could mitigate the chance that an employee starts looking for a new opportunity outside the company. Remember, the longer an employee stays with your company the greater your return on the investment of hiring that employee. Moreover, by initiating that conversation at this critical juncture, an employee may interpret your efforts for what they are; an investment and belief in their abilities, contributions and importance to the company. All of these advance a positive work environment and can even turn around a toxic one. Healthy company culture can increase employee productivity ultimately giving you, among other things, an advantage in hiring future employees.

Loyalty

Employees who have a long-term view about their relationship with an employer are more likely to be invested in helping the company succeed, and career pathing can play a key role here. For example, a competitor tries to recruit your employee for a position that offers more compensation and prominence. Think of an auto repair shop luring your mechanic away with more benefits, visibility, and pay. Despite short-term gains that may come with switching jobs, an employee with a career path may see that long-term opportunities at your business may be more compelling. In the case of the auto mechanic, perhaps you are getting ready to open a second location and have your employee on a career path to take a leadership role in this shop.

The benefits of career pathing for employees

Career pathing requires employees to put thought into what they want from their career, now and in the future. It also offers other benefits:

A sense of security

Changing jobs can be emotionally, professionally, and financially stressful for an individual. Employees with a career path may feel more secure working for an employer who wants to keep them interested, challenged, and professionally curious. Career pathing assures the employee that the employer wants to form a long-term, symbiotic partnership.

Employees can feel uncertain about job security especially with automation on the rise and fears of artificial intelligence taking over many traditional tasks. As businesses feel the need to scale the workforce from project to project, (e.g. manufacturing, marketing, information technology or construction), employee angst can be compounded. Effective HR teams and managers are positioned to help employees build a bridge to career growth, so they can be confident their role is important and can evolve over time. Moreover, employees will feel that you have their best interests in mind, which in turn can boost their sense of security and you may be rewarded with increased loyalty and engagement.

Increased trust and transparency

Career pathing acknowledges that employees may form different interests and seek new challenges. A career path inherently allows the employee to grow, expand, and pursue changing interests in a supportive and encouraging environment.

A plan for progress

Employees want to know they will gain the experience required to move forward in their career, regardless of how many years they may work for an employer. A career path doesn't require a worker to stay with an employer indefinitely, but it does give them access to the tools necessary to remain a valuable asset in their chosen profession.

How to develop a career pathing program

Establishing a career pathing plan makes the concept more concrete and, ideally, attainable for an employee. Charting the course provides clear markers and an action plan for career growth and development. Clear career mapping includes:

  • Determining career goals and desired jobs for the future.
  • Identifying current skills and attributes that support career goals.
  • Documenting career goals and steps to support that goal.
  • Carrying out the plan by identifying specific ways that an employee can reach their goals (e.g. attain new experiences by going to an industry conference, volunteering as chair of an employee resource group to gain leadership experience, etc.).
  • Conducting assessments on a regular basis. Consider an ongoing review process with regular touchpoint discussions rather than a traditional annual review.
  • Providing access to a mentor to enable ownership of an employee's career development.

How to implement career pathing in your company

Career pathing requires active involvement from both employee and employer. Some approaches to make a career path part of your company's talent management protocol may include:

Position career pathing as a benefit

In 2018 and 2019, HR professionals listed a career development program as one of the top seven nontraditional benefits that can be offered, according to the 2019 Paychex Pulse of HR Survey. To position a career development program as a benefit, approach and communicate the value of career pathing as a tool that prepares employees for a "lifetime of employability," not a lifetime commitment to an employer. For example, a franchise food worker can gain skills to eventually become a shift manager, store supervisor, and later, store manager.

Invite managers to participate

HR professionals should coach managers to view staff as resources for the entire company, not only to a single department or team. This can encourage managers to see how an employee could develop with training that may not be specific to their current role – but could be beneficial to their future goals, and the broader needs of the organization. Furthermore, it may encourage managers to look at employee potential across the entire company, making opportunities more available to all team members.

Path to Success

Taking time to invest in career pathing is an excellent way for employers to demonstrate a genuine interest in their workforce's professional capabilities for outcomes that are mutually beneficial to the business and the employee. It is a logical strategy for increasing engagement, productivity, and retention while cultivating a desirable work culture.

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